Visiting Germany’s Abandoned Volklinger Ironworks

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Volklinger Ironworks Germany

Abandoned Volklinger Ironworks

Saarbrücken, Germany

Do you know how steel is made? Volklinger Ironworks produced raw pig iron for over 100 years before it shut down in 1986. Now you can tour the old factory.

I really love abandoned buildings. There’s just something alluring about an old dilapidated structure slowly getting reclaimed by nature. A desolate and haunting kind of beauty composed of crumbling bricks, broken glass, and rusting iron.

I was in Germany for the Social Travel Summit, and decided to spend an additional few days traveling around the country. Specifically the state of Saarland along the border with France.

Arriving by train to the industrial town of Volklingen, I began exploring the last remaining 19th & 20th century ironworks facility in the world. Turns out this large & complicated smelting plant has an interesting history.

Iron Ore Buckets Volklinger

Suspended Buckets For Moving Iron Ore

Electrical Panel Volklinger

Rusty Electrical Panel

Volklinger Ironworks

Originally built in 1873 for steel production, the plant was soon converted into an iron-smelter for the production of liquid pig iron. Pig iron is the major ingredient used to create steel.

For over 100 years it produced molten iron that was shipped via rail car to steel mills where it was then forged into steel beams. It was the largest steel producer in the German empire.

During World War 2 Volklinger was one of the only factories that wasn’t bombed by the allies — which is odd because it was the largest & most productive. This has fueled many conspiracy theories over the years.

Like the fact that factory owner Carl Röchling was a Freemason, as was US President Franklin Roosevelt.

Volklinger Ironworks Photo

Nature Begins to Reclaim the Factory

Volklinger Ironworks Landscape

Man-Made Mountains of Slag in the Distance

How Steel Is Made

Steel is a metal alloy made from a mixture of iron and carbon. Too much carbon is bad though, as is too little. Raw iron ore mined from the Earth is the main ingredient, but it first needs to be concentrated before it can be used to create steel.

The blast furnaces at Volklinger Ironworks turned raw ore into pig iron using high heat, coke, and limestone to reduce oxygen and sulfur — producing a “slag” of impurities that floats to the top.

Then the pure molten iron can be drained out of the bottom of the furnace and loaded into special rail cars that take it to a nearby steel mill.

Excess carbon is burned off to make the correct mixture, and the hot metal is rolled into steel as we know it today.

Volklinger Ironworks Gas Engines

Huge Gas-Powered Engines Pump Hot Air Into the Furnace

Volklinger Ironworks Workers

Portraits of Volklinger Workers

Unpleasant Factory Conditions

Life at an ironworks during the 20th century wasn’t easy. Extreme heat, exposure to the elements, backbreaking work, choking coal dust, dangerous machinery, and loud noise were just some of the unimaginable conditions employees had to endure on a daily basis.

At one point 17,000 people worked at the factory to keep production going 24 hours a day! The whole town of Volklinger sprung up just to support the iron smelter and its workers.

During the war prisoners were forced to work here producing steel for Hitler’s armies.

Volklinger Ironworks Germany

Molten Iron Flowed Out Here

UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1994 Völklinger Hütte was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, allowing for safety improvements to the building and self-guided tours. Now anyone can visit and explore the rusting machinery, ancient gas-powered engines, towering blast-furnaces, and 40 meter high catwalks.

It was fascinating learning about the golden age of steel, and how it’s made. Arguably one of the most important products in the history of mankind.

More Information

Location: Saarbrücken, Germany
Total Cost: €12 euros
Official Website: Völklinger Hüette
Getting There: Saarbrücken is the nearest town with accommodation options, from there you can take a short train ride to Völklinger.
Useful Notes: The tour is self guided with informational placards along the way. Expect to spend a few hours exploring, the factory is large!
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Germany
Suggested Reading: Germany: Unraveling An Enigma

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Do you enjoy exploring abandoned buildings like me? Drop me a message in the comments below!

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  1. That is the place I am about to go. Most certainly during my next visit to Dusseldorf. I go there often for work, and I have been exploring the Industrial heritage sites around NRW (North Rhine Westphalia), which are many. It is a ridiculous amount of work to construct them. Now they are so atmospheric, especially at night.
    Out of the ones I have seen, I would recommend Duisburg Nord at night, if you happened to be in this area of Germany again. They make a fantastic light installation out of this factory.

  2. This is crazy. I have done a ton of research for my upcoming trip to Germany and have yet to hear about this!! Nice to see something that isn’t looking like a complete tourist trap. I’ll be trying to make this happen. Thanks for the info!

    Definitely think this needs to be seen by others heading to Germany.

  3. Hi, Rusting and abandoned factories and mines often lead us to believe that steelmaking is a “sunset” industry that is no longer important. The truth of the matter is that worldwide steel production doubled between 2000 and 2013.

  4. Matthew,
    if you like abandoned buildings then there are 2 places I would recommend,
    1) Visit a Chernobyl tour – although you can’t go in to the buildings it is an amazing sight
    2) Juradong Playground Park in Brunei – a theme park that has not been maintained and most buildings are abandoned (although new management is renovating it)
    Both great fun.

  5. This reminds me of A defunct nuclear reactor in Ukraine (east Crimea near cape kazantip) where they had rave parties every summer in the 90s called kazantip

  6. I love abandoned places where graffiti artists have taken over.
    Wouldn’t mind visiting that factory either though!
    Especially like the overview photo where you see nature taking over again. Seems like it could be an image out of some kind of adventure movie:)

  7. I’ve just found out you blog by looking for youtube travel channels. Nice job and design, I like it!
    By the way, if you are looking for abandoned factories&building I might visit Ukraine – here we a lot of this kind of stuff xD

  8. Looks like a lot of fun, and there’s something about that industrial age that I love. It’s reminds me of so many B-movie films I used to watch that were recorded in old abandoned factories.

    Interesting to think about just how much of history that place has seen and experienced.

  9. Matthew, reading your post about the Volklinger reminded me of my visit to the Zollverein colliery or coal mine in Essen, Germany. I only managed an afternoon and early-evening, but I know I’d like to go back to the “Ruhrgebiet” (Ruhr region) and the city of Essen to explore more of the old colliery, the Ruhr Museum, and the surrounding area. Or maybe I’d like to start seeing more of the stuff photographed by the Bechers (Bernd & Hilla) …

    1. Mines are curious places too. So much of our lifestyle today is dependent on what we pull out of the ground and forge in places like this. Yet how many of us know how it all works?

      1. Hi, Matthew. I think that’s part of the reason why Germany has placed importance on the (economic) history of their mines: what they were, how they developed, and where to go next. I admit that I’d go back and discover and learn more about these places. If you haven’t already, please check out the wonderful photography by Bernd & Hilla Becher. :)